The Artistic Director of Possible Worlds speaks to SBS about what’s in store for its sixth year.
4 Aug 2011 - 3:38 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

French-born Matt Ravier is convinced that there's a sort of natural kinship between Australia and Canada. Ravier believes that this cultural rapport of sorts provides a “gateway” for local film fans and filmmakers. There's a lot to learn, he says, from the Canadian experience, and vice versa. “We're two large countries, with small populations, both very multicultural, both have colonial pasts and those things unite us when we make films,” he told SBS.

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Listen to SBS French interview with festival director Matt Ravier (en Francais)

Certainly, Ravier says, there is another significant factor that closely binds Australia and Canada. It's the fact that each produces a cinema in the face of the USA's corporate media juggernaut. “Out of this cultural dominance,” he says, “comes a similar way of looking at the world.”

He says that whenever Canadian guests of the festival do any media here, they mention the fact that, “Australia and Canada are fighting the same 'enemy'. Whether it's film finance, or audience development or marketing your own product to your own population… there's a lot to talk about with each other. I think Australians have a love/hate relationship with their own country's cinema and Canadians have exactly the same thing.”

Like Australia, he says, Canadian cinema struggles to be taken seriously in some quarters. In Canada, this is because its cinema is too often bundled with that of the USA; identities merge, in ways that create confusion rather than a bond, he says. “Media will no longer report on Canadian box office figures… TV signals from the US spill over the border and therefore it's a much more unifying cultural force that needs to be resisted.”

Ravier believes the whole point of festivals is to encourage audiences to re-think critical clichés and to discover new possibilities: “Even if it's only one week, it's a chance for an audience to look at a sample of one country's national cinema and get involved with it.”

He watched about 100 films produced by Canadian filmmakers in the last year, before finally compiling the 20 that make up the program. Diverse, rich and complex, the films in Possible Worlds are, he says, a fair sampling of Canada's cinematic output. Or, to put it another way, there is more than “one” Canada; in terms of culture, language and life style. “Film has an incredible role in exposing audiences [to this kind of richness],” he says.

He points to Kinngait: Riding Light into the World, directed by prolific documentary filmmaker Annette Man, a guest at this year's festival. This exquisitely beautiful film looks at a community of Inuit Eskimos, who have established “the art capital of the North” in the remote Canadian Arctic. “How many of us would ever get the chance to experience this first hand?”

For opening night Ravier and his team have selected another kind of film that in its way typifies a certain “Canadian-ness” too. Score: A Hockey Musical (pictured) is just that. With an ironic nod to '80s teen musicals, it has Olivia Newton-John as a hockey mum and features actor and festival guest Stephen Mchattie in an ebullient “celebration of Canadian culture,” Ravier says. “It has a kind of joy about cinema and it doesn't take itself too seriously, and it's certainly very camp and it asks to be enjoyed that way.”

This is Ravier's sixth Canadian Film Festival, the first debuting in 2006, not that long after he had first arrived in Australia. A dedicated and erudite cineaste, the thirty-something Ravier runs a well-respected film blog, A Life in Film, under the non-de plume Matt Riviera. Meanwhile, he is artistic director of The Festivalists, an ambitious and bustling not-for-profit event company that runs a series of imaginatively conceived film culture events, like Young at Heart, a Sydney seniors' film festival, Access All areas, a touring festival, and Kino Sydney, a monthly film night. Central to the Festivalist's philosophy is the idea of building and developing audiences; relying on corporate sponsors (which guarantee's curatorial autonomy says Ravier) rather than support via government and embassy cultural attaché. Ravier may be unapologetically serious about all things film; but he, and the team, are dedicated to putting 'the fun' back into festival experience. Which seems a necessary ambition when non-aficionados have often characterised film festivals as either too earnest or too concerned with the business of filmmaking.

“For film culture to survive in this country we need to constantly nurture an interest in world cinema,” argues Ravier. “That's the long-term investment that we [film festivals/exhibitors] all make. With the CFF we like to have each screening to have its own personality. We use non-traditional cinema venues like the Factory. The tactic is get them in; so live music fans may come out for Drummer's Dream (about a drum clinic in Ontario) supported by a live act… and if they like that they may want to try something else.”

Ravier's programming co-mingles smart, quietly subversive genre films like the excellent Small Town Murder Songs and The Whistleblower starring Rachel Weisz with accessible 'youth' pics like Daydream Nation and Trigger, about a rock band, with documentaries like Liberia '77 (presented by festival guest Jeff Topham), a personal portrait of life in Africa that examines the West's impact on the culture; and ultra-low budget personal dramas like Modra (set Slovakia) and the not-quite-convenient to categorise, Beauty Day, about DIY stunt guru Ralph Zavadil. What unites them, he says, is the “desire to subvert”.

“But in ways that are very Canadian. It's a very decent and polite, non-confrontational society that has just re-elected a Conservative government… and I think this tendency to subvert the established dogma is linked with the US's cultural dominance since you can't define or express your identity without rebelling a little bit.”

In Canada, says Ravier, filmmakers cannot stand out based on their aspirations alone. “The films that succeed are the ones that are incredibly personal. They want to tell a certain story and that desire is much more powerful than the need to be a filmmaker.”